The Fourth of July is great for all sorts of things — family time, baseball, sunburns — but it’s not always the easiest to capture within a single frame. These days, fireworks are as synonymous with the American holiday as over-the-top parades featuring your actual uncle as Uncle Sam, yet they remain one of the most elusive and challenging tasks for any photographer to capture given their rapid movement and quick color changes. Fortunately, there are ways to take better photos of fireworks if you opt for the right equipment and don’t mind fiddling with your camera’s manual settings. Check out a few of our tips below, so you can go from amateur to ace.
Set up your camera ahead of time
Depending on your location, find out where in the sky the fireworks will be, so you can already set up your camera well before the event starts. When you’re in the city or have a good view of the surround landscape, you may want to include some foreground — such as a skyline or the gathering crowd – to make your images more interesting.
Also, think about what lens to use ahead of the fireworks. Depending on how far away you are, at which altitude the fireworks will be, and whether you want to include some of the environment in your photos, you may want to use a wide-angle lens, a normal focal length, or maybe even a telephoto lens. While you’re at it, consider bringing along a lens cleaner along for the ride.
Use a tripod
Using a tripod is absolutely necessary to capture clear and sharp photos of fireworks, especially when using a longer lens such as a telephoto. Since you’re essentially capturing streaks of light over a long exposure, you need the camera to be as steady as possible.
If you don’t own a tripod or don’t have the time to buy one before the fireworks, there are other means to stabilizing your camera. For one, many cameras and lenses offer sophisticated image stabilization that allows you to shoot at shutter speeds down to 1/10th of a second — provided you have steady hands. Another option is to steady your camera on a pole, a railing, a wall, a table, or anything with an even surface.
Ditch the Flash
We can’t say how many times we’ve seen people photographing fireworks with their camera’s flash turned on. Flash won’t help you here. Conserve your batteries and set your flash to “off.”
Your best bet is to turn off autofocus completely.
Your best bet is to turn off autofocus completely, if possible. If you leave it on, your camera’s autofocus system will likely just “hunt” back and forth because it won’t have any object to lock focus on. Instead, set your focus to some point in the distance. If there are other distant objects in your shot (such as a building or skyline), focus on those.
Most DSLR lenses and some lenses for mirrorless cameras (such as the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 or the Fujifilm 24mm f/1.4) have a distance scale on the focus ring. Try starting off with your lens at the infinity (∞) symbol and adjust from there as necessary.
Use a Remote Shutter
A cable release is handy to reduce vibrations caused by pressing the shutter release on the camera. It’s not necessary, but helpful. If you don’t have one, be careful to keep steady when you press and release the shutter release button on your camera. (A tip: Use the camera’s self-timer to avoid causing any vibrations when the shutter opens and closes.)
Many new cameras today come with Wi-Fi, which you can use to remotely activate the shutter from a smartphone. This is the same idea as a cable release, so use it if it’s available.
Exposure Settings (ISO and Aperture)
For best image quality, set your camera’s ISO setting to 100. At this setting your camera’s sensor will be “tuned down” and produce images with the least amount of noise. While most modern higher-end cameras today produce very low noise even at high ISO settings, there’s no real reason to increase the settings here. If the camera is stabilized on a tripod, it’s not really necessary to use a “fast” setting. (If you have no choice but to handhold the camera, you can try a very fast ISO setting like 3,200 or 6,400 and see what kind of results you can get with shorter exposure times.)
You’ll want to set your camera’s mode to B or “bulb” mode. This mode keeps the shutter open for as long as you depress the shutter release. Be careful though: Even the slightest shake will be visible in the resulting image, so this is not recommended when handholding the camera. If you don’t have a remote release, you can also use your camera’s self-timer and set the exposure manually to a fixed value
As far as aperture is concerned, try starting off with f/8 and adjust from there. Depending on how bright the fireworks display is, you’ll need to adjust up and down. If your exposures are too bright, close down to f/11 or f/13. If they’re too dark, open up to f/5.6 or f/4. In general, the smaller your aperture (that is, the larger the f-stop number), the greater your chances of getting the fireworks in focus. At the same time, however, you may need to make a longer exposure to get a bright image
If you want to capture the streaks that fireworks cause in the sky, try to open your shutter a second or two before the first burst explodes (again: using the self-timer helps if you don’t have a remote release.) Keep your shutter open until it’s finished, or set the exposure manually to one second, or even two or more. If you want to capture “multiple” bursts, keep your shutter open for as long as they’re exploding.
You’ll want to frequently check your exposures to see if they’re too light and dark. This will generally depend on how many bursts are exploding at once. Refer to the exposure settings section above to determine what to do if your exposures are too light or dark. As a general rule, experimenting with settings helps in order to find out how to get the best results.
Sometimes, exposure times shorter than a second could give you some nice results. Try experimenting with the 1/10th of a second setting mentioned above, especially if you don’t have a tripod and need to handhold the camera. When shooting with a faster shutter speed like this, you may have to open up your aperture and/or boost your ISO setting in order to get a proper exposure.
As a guideline on how aperture, ISO value, and shutter speed work together to influence the exposure of the resulting image, we recommend you take a look at this video.
Finally, if your camera doesn’t support manual settings or if you’re insecure about fiddling with them, see if it has a “Fireworks” scene mode built-in. This will help you achieve great fireworks photos without having to worry about exposure times, ISO value, aperture, etc. Once again, stabilizing your camera is a good idea in order to achieve shake-free pictures.
This article was originally published on December 31, 2012, and updated on July 1, 2015, by Brandon Widder.